There I was, after my third back surgery, lying in a dark hotel room in a lot of pain.
On the phone my agent told me, “The Eagles are going to release you.” I was out. Worse, I didn’t know if I was going to ever play football again.
That was one of the toughest, darkest periods of my entire life. My entire identity—all of who I was—was attached to the game of football. And I wasn’t in the NFL any more.
Losing something valuable hurts in a unique way that affects your entire life. But losing something does not change who you are at your core.
Here are three questions I asked myself to recover from my job loss and bounce back from what did turn out to be the end of my career in football.
THE KEY: WITH OR WITHOUT WHAT YOU LOST, WHO ARE YOU?
Of course every single person I saw would ask, “What happened? Why aren’t you playing football?” In the grocery store, at the coffee shop, or friends—everybody was asking me the one question I just hated to answer. It stung too much.
I was in a dark place and I knew I couldn’t stay there very long. I had to pick myself up.
At one point I turned on my phone’s video camera, looked into it and said, “This is how I’m feeling. It’s so hard for me to separate my identity as a football player from who I am.” When I watched the video, I heard how ridiculous it sounded.
My whole life had been focused on football. I didn’t really know who I was. I had to find out who I was outside of football.
And I never thought the answers would lead me to become not just better at football, but everything else I have decided to do.
So I asked myself the following three questions. These questions can be used to bounce back from any difficult thing that happens to you and move on to something even greater.
(You have to answer these honestly. If you don’t know at first, that’s ok, just take some time to think about it.)
QUESTION 1: WHAT AM I PASSIONATE ABOUT?
The first question that gave me concrete answers, the one that started to lift me out of my sadness and embarrassment, my humiliation and everything I was feeling, was the question: “What am I passionate about?”
Tip: When you identify your passions, it’s important to separate from the things you have done in the past. This is about you, not what you’ve done. What you’ve lost is never the answer.
When I thought about it, I remembered I was passionate about learning. I liked reading, especially about history. So I considered going back for more education. I considered law school or becoming a teacher, because I love learning, I love reading, and I love serving. How could I do those things? I started studying to take the LSAT, the law school exam. I also got the Praxis book on American History to study for the teachers’ exam.
That put me in motion. I had an answer to the question I was asking myself every day “What will you do?”
Here’s another way to get at this. Today, when I help players through transition or “retirement,” I ask them to shoot me words, for 60 seconds, that reflect things they love about the job they are leaving. The last athlete I worked with said: “Hardworking, tangible results, technology, teaching, helping, space for growth.”
If that’s who she is, what would she love to get into? A startup, a small company, even a large high-quality company. Culture was important to her. She started putting together her passions—before she started finding something else to do.
Finding what I was passionate about helped alleviate the crushing feeling of not only my unemployment, but my future unemployment. It didn’t matter. I was following my passions.
Then when people asked, “What are you doing now, Ryan?” I got to say, “I’m following my passions.” It changed the conversation. “Oh, what are those?” “Well, I’ll tell you something. I’m really passionate about reading and serving others, so I’m studying to take the LSAT while also thinking of becoming a teacher.”
Conversation is no longer about your loss. It’s about what you are doing next.
Think about it. When have you not felt good working towards something or doing what you love? Everyone loves their passions. This is who you really are. Choose to live those.
QUESTION 2: HOW CAN I FORGIVE MYSELF?
The other helpful thing I did was that I forgave myself.
I forgave myself for feeling embarrassed. For feeling like my body had failed me. I forgave myself for giving every single thing I had to being a football player to the point where I forgot to ask these questions about myself.
On my journey of 1,000 steps, this was the second one: forgiving myself for the very natural, very human feelings I was having in my unemployment.
Too often we try to avoid our feelings, and avoid saying, “I’m embarrassed that I’m unemployed. I’m upset about my loss. I’m pissed off that I lost my job!”
It’s okay to feel this. Loss never feels good. It just doesn’t. So there’s no point in getting mad at yourself. It only makes it worse.
Be aware of your feelings, and forgive yourself for feeling that way. They will, eventually, fade.
QUESTION 3: WHAT MAKES ME FEEL GOOD?
The third step was asking myself “What do I do that makes me feel good? What do I do when I’m happy?” Reading made me happy. Yoga and working out made me happy. Being around my family made me happy.
No matter how bad I was feeling, I could do something about it when I knew what made me happy. So I moved from Philadelphia back to Minnesota to be with my family. When I felt down, I chose gratitude for the things in my life I DID have. Gratitude helped me remember the things that made me happy and then I did them. Boom. Hey, man. I’m back on track. Man, that was some real feelings I was feeling.
I’m glad I didn’t open a box of Oreos but went to yoga instead.
Happiness comes from within. I had to take the time to reach in and look for happiness, then reach outside myself and work those things into my life.
And wouldn’t you know that I found a job in radio where every morning I can work out, spend time with my family, read for the show, and then go to work.
The fact is, loss is hard. Really hard.
Identifying your passions and looking forward, forgiving yourself for your feelings, and doing what makes you feel good are the keys to recovery. They’re key to not only surviving loss but getting yourself back into thriving in a new situation.
I love my new life, but I know it took me a while to get here.
When you shift your thinking from what you did or had to who you are, then, regardless of any loss you endure, you will bounce back faster and come out stronger.